- Words Louis Rabinowitz
The BBC has announced a multimillion dollar drive for fresh new comedy - but is a "new Fleabag" truly possible?
British comedy doesn’t always translate across the globe – there are plenty of beloved hits on these shores that haven’t found any appeal in the US or elsewhere. Sometimes, shows have had to go through a bit of a conversion process to work, like with The Office, whose US remake became one of the most popular comedies of the century so far.
That wasn’t the case with Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, however. Airing on the BBC here and Prime Video in the US, the sad-comedy struck gold in 2016 and then platinum in 2019 with its sensational second season. It was a true global hit, and the only downside for the BBC was that it ended there, with Waller-Bridge choosing up to wrap up the story after just twelve episodes.
Hits like Fleabag are rare, but it doesn’t mean the BBC aren’t going to try. The comedy arm of the broadcaster has announced that it’s plugging an extra £10 million into comedy development over the next few years. Comedy Director Jon Petrie celebrated success stories like Ghosts, Motherland or Inside No. 9, but also expressed a hunger for new stories in the vein of Fleabag.
Petrie said, “We want relatable British characters with an angle we’ve not seen before, and we want high joke rates. We also want shows that talk to younger audiences.” Not said, but certainly implied, is that the BBC would very much like another Fleabag, which hit jackpot by telling a story instantly relatable to Millennials and Gen Z alike.
The question is, then, what would a new Fleabag look like? The temptation would be to imagine a successor that repeats many of the tricks for which Waller-Bridge’s opus became known – the messily relatable protagonist, the fourth-wall-breaking, the omission of important character names – because they worked the first time.
Yet Fleabag‘s success was more than just a mathematical combination of interesting tricks. Season two’s main story was about the protagonist’s secret obsession with an aptly-named Hot Priest, which was hardly an obvious premise that audiences all over could relate to, but that season became more popular than the first, with the priest character as portrayed by Andrew Scott becoming a subject of Internet obsession.
Fleabag has become part of a neatly-defined trend now of stories about “messy women”, but before it hit our screens, few were anticipating that a show like this could work. Instead of following what had worked before, Waller-Bridge invented new ways for comedy to function and showed audiences what the genre could be. If anything needs to be repeated for the “next Fleabag“, it’s that. The BBC needs to funnel its investment towards bold ideas that seem as if they might not work, and which don’t bear much resemblance to past successes, especially including Fleabag. If there is a next Fleabag, it’s likely to be a different creation entirely, united only by a boldness of creative ambition.
The BBC are obviously leaning on established properties as a key part of this planned comedy boom: they’re reviving Jack Whitehall’s hit sitcom Bad Education for a new series, and making a new special episode of sleeper hit Detectorists. That’s understandable, and audiences will surely respond to the returns of familiar characters. It’s important, though, that the comedy tastemakers remember that risk is where true creative gold comes from. It did before, and it can do so again.